Aid convoys carrying food and supplies headed for besieged Syrian towns, including Madaya on border with Syria and Lebanon, where thousands are trapped and the United Nations says people are reported to have died of starvation.
"The trucks have departed," UN World Food Program spokesperson Abeer Etefa said in a statement to VICE News. She said she wasn't sure when the supplies would arrive, but that the Syrian government and opposition groups had guaranteed access to the besieged towns.
Etefa said the WFP convoy to Madaya is carrying enough food for 40,000 people for one month, nutrition products, and medical supplies, including rice, oil, and canned foods.
A BBC producer tweeted video of the convoy.
Another convoy departed from Homs toward two other besieged towns — Foah and Kefraya near Idlib — with similar supplies intended for 20,000 people.
The blockade of Madaya, a town of around 30,000 people in the mountains near the border between Syria and Lebanon, has become a focal issue for Syrian opposition leaders who told a UN envoy they will not take part in talks with the government until it and other sieges are lifted.
Residents told VICE News last week that in the past month alone, 31 Madaya residents have died from starvation, or in attempts to run the Hezbollah-manned blockade that encircles the town. A report compiled by the Syrian-American Medical Society and made available to VICE News found that a kilogram (two pounds) of flour now retails for around $100, while the average Syrian makes less than $200 each month.
"I had strawberry leaves for dinner today," Rajai, a 26-year old English and math teacher in Madaya, told VICE News by phone, asking that his name be withheld for security reasons. "I haven't had a real meal in three months." Since the siege began in July, he's lost 50 pounds. "Kids are eating leaves off the trees, and the very old and very young are dying," he said.
As the death toll mounted in December, residents of Madaya began posting desperate pleas on social media, along with disturbing images, reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps.
WFP said today's convoy to Madaya is the first of its type since October of last year.
"Since then, no food assistance or humanitarian supplies have reached these areas," the WFP statement said. "In the following weeks, more convoys will arrive in the besieged areas with other items such as medicine, kitchen sets, blankets, winter clothing, folic acid for pregnant women, water cans and other supplies."
Blockades have been a common feature of the nearly five-year-old war that has killed 250,000 people. Government forces have besieged rebel-held areas near Damascus for several years and more recently rebel groups have blockaded loyalist areas including al Foua and Kefraya.
The areas included in the latest agreement were all part of a local ceasefire deal agreed in September, but implementation has been halting.
Monday's convoys include supplies and vehicles from the WFP, International Committee of the Red Cross, the Syrian Red Crescent, and other UN agencies.